Life After Death

Renee Kemper
Book Bites
Published in
7 min readSep 21, 2020


This story is adapted from Sparrow in the Razor Wire, by Quan Huynh.

I was twenty-four years old, attending college, and working at the Gallup Organization. This was before the fame of their Strengthsfinder studies, the personality assessment based on positive psychology that changed how the corporate world viewed management styles and talents. At that time, they were more known for their Gallup polls, and I was their 1998 Interviewer of the Year. The position would have put me in charge of a location that had over 300 interviewers. Finally, for once in my life, it felt things would go right.

There was another side of my life, though. For the last seven years, I had been going in and out of juvenile hall and the California Youth Authority, where they housed the most serious juvenile offenders. I was released the previous year from a parole violation for possession of handguns and was still on active parole. I felt my life had no sense of purpose or direction.

On the one hand, I was a member of a violent and ruthless Vietnamese street gang, and on the other hand, I attended college and seemed on the outside to be as capable as the next person. I had no self-understanding of my true motives. I only knew that I wanted a better life than the one I was living but had no sense of where I could find it. The management position, and everything it represented, seemed to be the answer. Yet I was also seeking status, a form of success, in the gang life. Later, I would learn how wrong I was in pursuing either path. It would take a life sentence in prison for me to find true meaning and purpose in my life.

Several months after the interview, I was notified by the management team that I was not a fit. This news crushed me. I was ashamed and upset; I did not share the bad news with anyone. Instead, I stuffed it into a dark corner of my mind.

Whenever something in my daily life frustrated or upset me, I found an outlet in the gang lifestyle. In the back of my mind, because I felt like a failure for not getting the management position at Gallup, I became more determined to succeed as a gang member.

On January 15, 1999, I shot and killed Minh Nguyen and tried to shoot and kill his three friends, David, Vincent, and Andrew. After our fight at a Hollywood nightclub, I put into effect a chain of events that would forever alter numerous lives.

I Was Not Born A Murder

My first bunky at Pelican Bay had given me a blue spiral-bound notebook that I never used, yet held on to throughout the years. Some of the pages were tattered and coming loose around the spine, but I now had a use for it. I jotted down quotes that resonated with me, and my blue notebook was soon filled up with scrawls and notes about particular areas of my life I wanted to refine, influenced from each of the books I read. Many evenings while restricted to my dorm, I read at the low wall, and scribbled quotes in my blue notebook.

These spiritual giants helped transform the way I thought and how I saw the world. Many books felt like they were written to help me through my own struggle with darkness, and I noticed there was a recurring theme of not dealing with failure in my life. When my father died and I believed I was somehow responsible, I became resentful, rejected God, and never properly processed his death. When I failed my SATs in high school, I tried to escape by signing up for the reserves. When Gallup did not promote me, it was easier to find someone to take it out on instead of facing why I was not a fit.

I suspected there was something wrong with my life, my sense of identity, and with me as a person. I was afraid to admit that my sense of self was all fake, and spiraled into a deep depression. In my reasoning, any sense of identity, no matter how ugly, was much better than no sense of identity. The books I read gave me encouragement to find my way.

A whole new world opened up for me inside prison. Eventually in my search for knowledge, I became fascinated with books on the saints. They were all flawed in one way or another and yet were able to build something of their lives and leave lasting legacies. One of my favorites was Saint Francis of Assisi, born into a rich family of merchants. Despite his wealth, he was described as a rogue and a hedonist and was eventually imprisoned. One day, he encountered a man on the side of the road who had parts of his face and hands eaten away by leprosy, yet uncharacteristically embraced him with love and kindness. That is where his process of conversion began, as he walked away from riches and what the world saw as valuable. Saint Francis went on to found the Franciscan order.

I wished I could meet these spiritual heroes and pick their minds. At least I could glimpse their intimate thoughts by reading their writings, I reasoned. At that point, I wanted to salvage something of my life, despite my failures as a human being. This kindled the first spark of how I wanted to resurrect myself, even if I were to die in prison. Like Saint Francis, I could treat lepers around me with love and kindness. On the prison yard, we had our own lepers — men who were mentally challenged, socially outcast, or discarded as people not even worth talking to. In a way, I felt like a leper myself and only wanted to be embraced.

Open Your Mind

I developed a habit of journaling that opened up my mind. My evening journals became a repository for my thoughts. I dumped everything into them, whatever I was thinking, feeling, and trying to incorporate into my life. I gained clarity over my own thoughts. In my journals, I learned to forgive myself. For example, I read books on mindfulness and meditation and others on effective communication. I noticed that many times during conversations with people, in my mind, I picked apart what they said. Instead of hearing them, I only wanted to prove people wrong. My mind had no filter, and I judged others harshly. The books I read challenged me to approach conversations in a different way.

In my journals each evening, I reviewed my day. I wrote down where I could improve in my interactions, how I could slow down my responses, and what to do moving forward. For example, one evening I was sitting on the concrete benches, feeding pigeons and sparrows with sunflower seeds from our lunch sacks. Another prisoner, Lefty, walked up near to where I sat and plopped down on the ground, startling the birds, and they flew away. He continued looking up at the sky.

Life After Death

I have been home now about three and a half years, and part of the return home has been more wonderful than I could have imagined. Every Sunday, my mom and I go to Mass, and after, we grab lunch together. We refer to it as our Sunday lunch date. I am absolutely happy in her presence. We are no longer sitting inside a crowded visiting room with small tables and eating vending machine food. I no longer see the look of hopelessness on my mother’s face, the same look of hopelessness that was on every mother’s face in those visiting rooms.

I created my first company six months after parole. I’m working at an organization where I can help other men and women with criminal histories to create their own companies, too. I have been able to meet some amazing human beings out here, many of whom I can call friends.

But not everything has been amazing. I still face my own challenges. In prison, I had learned to communicate and connect with other men in meaningful ways. Many of us were on the same page about personal development and effective communication. Out here, I have struggled to receive and achieve that same level of respect, dignity, and thoughtfulness when it comes to communication. I look back over my life and realize about twenty-two years of it has been behind bars. In that time, though, I have evolved and become more mindful in my words. I understand today how powerful words are, and I can either say things to build people up or say things to tear them down.

No matter the prison, the key to unlocking the door is in each one of us.

To learn more about finding your own redemption and discovery, you can find Sparrow in the Razor Wire on Amazon.

Quan Huynh has been described as a mighty warrior, a magician, and a mountain of goodness. He is the post-release program manager for Defy Ventures, a nonprofit helping those with a criminal past transform their lives through the journey of entrepreneurship.

After spending twenty-two years in and out of correctional institutions, Quan was paroled from a life sentence in 2015 and created his first company six months later. The following year, he received the Peace Fellowship Award for his work with the Alternatives to Violence Project. Quan has been featured in Entrepreneur, spoken at One Last Talk, and has appeared on several podcasts.



Renee Kemper
Book Bites

Entrepreneur. Nerd. Designer. Maker. Reader. Writer. Business Junky. Unapologetic Coffee Addict. World Traveler in the Making.